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Life | Blue Danube?

In the year when Hungary and Slovakia have joined the EU and Romania and Bulgaria wait for accession, Life tracks the course of the Danube through the heart of Central Europe. The programme examines the legacies of communist rule and conflict in the region, and asks when more than one country shares what a river has to offer, what are the consequences? This is the story of how the Danube has become a new battleground in the conflict between the EU’s transport and agriculture lobbies, and environmentalists fighting to preserve the river’s unique ecology. Can the EU stick to its own commitment to environmental sustainability?

The Danube is Western Europe’s longest river. It runs nearly two thousand eight hundred kilometres from its source in the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea. It is the world’s most international river connecting 18 countries. The Danube and its tributaries comprise a river basin that covers one-tenth of continental Europe.

But now, with the expansion of the European Union into Eastern Europe, it’s at the heart of a very modern dilemma – how to create prosperity through trade and development without destroying the environment. Now the Danube has become a new battleground in the conflict between the EU’s transport and agriculture lobbies, and environmentalists fighting to preserve the river’s unique ecology.

According to Laurence Mee, Professor of Environmental Policy at Plymouth University: ‘We’re now on the edge of a very important time, perhaps an unprecedented occasion in the whole of Europe, that is the extension of the European Union. Many people in these countries have very high expectations. They expect the European Union to arrive and change things like a fairy godmother, whereas maybe for the environment of the Danube it could be an evil ogre.’

Over the last thirty years, the European Union has actively encouraged the expansion of river transport and intensive farming methods. Now, with Brussels’ power in the ascendant, and as the EU expands into Eastern Europe, the threat to rivers on the continent is set to increase. The EU Transport Network Plan envisages an integrated system of roads, railways, canals and rivers. The Danube – with the Rhine – is central to this plan to link the North Sea to the Black Sea.

Dirk van VreckemThe Danube has been dammed and channelled for navigation for centuries. There are already 58 dams between its source and Vienna. But the EU’s transport policy would lead, eventually, to the whole length of the river being changed and adapted for navigation. In Germany today there’s only one short stretch which survives as a natural, free-flowing river. But this part of the river is too shallow for today’s huge fully-loaded barges – so the European Union want to deepen it and dam it.

Dirk van Vreckem, who is responsible for Road Transport & Inland Waterways in the EU’s Energy and Transport Directorate-General, argues that ‘the European Community wants in the first place to shift transport of goods from the road to other modes of transport, so in particular to modes that are environment friendly, in the first place inland waterways but also rail. And we are very much convinced that making better use of inland waterways is a contribution to further economic integration in Europe.’ Ensuring a minimum depth of two and a half metres along the whole length of the Danube is the EU’s long-term plan.

Ship transport is supposed to be environmentally friendly. But, says Bernd Loetsch, Director of Vienna’s Natural History Museum: ‘That is only true if you don’t spoil the environment by destructive building measures. This Bavarian Danube has only one third of the water that you can see in Austria so would have to dam to really fulfil the desires of the big lobbies for huge ships. There seems to be a compulsory process that if you dam one river you create an erosive process downstream and you have to build the next dam to stop erosion, and then you have to build the next dam and suddenly you have no river at all.’

And Ulrich Eichelmann of WWF Austria, adds:

Common Agricultural Policy,‘In order to improve the conditions for shipping, they want to deepen the river here. The river in this section here is about 2.2 metres deep. And now what Austria is going to do is to deepen the river up to 2.8 metres. That doesn’t sound that much, but in order to achieve that they have to dig a lot, and that concentration of water means that we have less water for the floodplains here. So it’s a kind of competition between navigation and the ecosystem here.’

But canalisation isn’t the only threat to the Danube. The legacy of communism, combined with the EU’s own Common Agricultural Policy, are now threatening the quality of the water itself. Just across the border from Austria, the Gabcikovo canal and dam is the biggest hydro-electric project on the Upper Danube. First conceived by the communist governments of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the project was eventually completed by the Slovaks in 1992 after the post-communist Hungarian government had pulled out.

But canalisation isn’t the only threat to the Danube. The legacy of communism, combined with the EU’s own Common Agricultural Policy, are now threatening the quality of the water itself. Just across the border from Austria, the Gabcikovo canal and dam is the biggest hydro-electric project on the Upper Danube. First conceived by the communist governments of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the project was eventually completed by the Slovaks in 1992 after the post-communist Hungarian government had pulled out.

Philip Weller, Executive Secretary of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, points out that building dams means that the floodplains suffer because the water is going through the main channel, and doesn’t get then into the floodplain area where waters would naturally go. ‘Floodplain forests are the most productive habitats – in fact they are equivalent to rainforests because they are constantly receiving nutrients, they are in water – and they are extremely productive habitats. And when they are not getting that water, they are becoming less productive and less able to sustain that type of life that would exist there.’

Millennium Development GoalsMargot Wallström, the EU Commissioner for the Environment, certainly understands the problem: ‘The Millennium Development Goals are extremely important to the European Union and they have to do with the right of access to clean drinking water. With an increase in shortage of water, with more and more of our groundwaters being polluted we will see more and more conflicts over water, if we cannot create access to clean drinking water for all those who need it and who lack it today.’ But what about the other activities of the EU? For decades now, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has subsidised intensive farming methods and the use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals break down very slowly. If they’re released into the Danube upriver in Germany and Austria, they will eventually find their way into the waters downstream.

‘Nobody can deny that the Common Agricultural Policy, with excessive subsidies, have also created a lot of environmental problems including the nitrates problem,’ admits Margot Wallström. ‘It is important to reform the Common Agricultural Policy in such a way that we do not invite the new member states to repeat the mistakes by the old member states so to say. And of course, they have an advantage in that they have not been using so much pesticides or fertilisers and they have not had a very intensive agricultural sector.’

But there is really a question mark as to whether the EU’s environmental policy will prevail over the transport and agricultural lobbies. Professor Mee: ‘Four more Danube countries have joined the European Union, and in 2007 another two are supposed to be joining. That means most of the Danube’s agriculture will suddenly find itself subject to European Union directives. Now this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, European environmental legislation is extremely helpful in improving the status of our water. On the other hand, the introduction of the Common Agricultural Policy, if it isn’t done extremely carefully, will increase the amount of the intensity of farming – the amount of fertilisers that are applied particular in the lower Danube countries and this will present an enormous burden on the Danube yet again.

“This is the river’s kidney, this is the place where a lot of the things that come down the river can be cleaned up – it’s the last chance for the river to clean itself before it flows into the Black Sea. And being such a beautiful place, everybody I think will agree that it has to be preserved not just for its function but for humanity.’

RELATED LINKS:

Visit the website of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, and read their article on the endangered Morava wetlands: Austro-Slovak project endangers Morava wetlands. Another page deals with the Danube wetlands of Vojvodina, and another with the Danube Delta.

Danube Day 2004 was celebrated on 29 June. See also the International Association for Danube Research.

The Danube Online website covers the lower course of the river through Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

At the European Union, visit the Directorate-General Energy and Transport, and Margot Wallström’s home page.

Click here to read EU White Paper: European transport policy for 2010: time to decide. The revised EU Trans-European Transport Network Plan can be read here.

Read about LIFE (the EU’s Financial Instrument for the Environment) and the new European water policy: Water, an essential resource, and A cleaner, greener Europe: LIFE and the EU waste policy.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has a Danube-Carpathian Programme, and a European Living Waters Programme. For WWF Austria (in German), go here.

Visit the website of the Kopacki Rit Nature Park in Croatia, which features photos and lists of flora and fauna. The Park is aRamsar site of international importance.

Visit Professor Laurence Mee’s page at Plymouth University’s Marine & Coastal Policy Research Group.

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